The Trail of Tears has a great deal of meaning for every person of American Indian ancestry, whether they are Cherokee or not. For me it has always stood for what is best and worst about the history of the United States. The best can be seen in the courage of the Cherokee people, who fought as peaceful warriors to prevent their unjust removal, and in the incredible endurance that enabled them to survive that terrible experience. Their courage and endurance have been an inspiration to me for as long as I can remember. Some of my dearest friends are contemporary Cherokees who descended from those who were sent out on the Trail. What is best about the United States can also be seen in the generosity and commitment that was shown to the Cherokees by the white men and women who chose to help them. Such Christian ministers as Samuel Worcester, Evan Jones, Daniel Butrick and Elizur Butler stayed by the side of the Cherokees. The worst, of course, is the betrayal by the United States government and several state governments of the Cherokees. The Cherokees tried to do everything within the law and wished only to live in peace on their own lands. Yet they were cheated out of their birthright and treated as if they were less than human.
It is amazing to me that so little is still known about the Trail of Tears or the lives of the Cherokees themselves. The fact that a good number of Cherokees were (by Western standards) highly educated at the time of their removal comes as news to most people. So, when Scholastic offered me the chance to do a book in their Dear America series, the idea of a journal written by a highly literate Cherokee boy who is shocked to find himself on the Trail of Tears was one of the first ideas that came to me.
It couldn't have happened at a better time for me. Since the early 1970s, I've been deeply involved with Cherokee people in a number of ways. I've read every book and article on Cherokee history and culture that I could find. I've learned from such Cherokee storytellers and keepers of oral tradition as Gayle Ross, a direct descendent of the same John Ross, who was the Principal Chief in the 19th century. I've visited many places along the routes the Cherokees followed on the Trail of Tears. Most recently, I was asked by the National Geographic Society to write a book about the Cherokees and Navajos with a focus on the Trail of Tears of the Cherokees and the removal of the Navajos from their homelands during what was known as "The Long Walk." That book, Trails of Tears, Paths of Beauty , was just published last year. In doing research for it, I traveled to North Carolina and Oklahoma. I met and interviewed such Cherokee people as Tom Belt and Lloyd Owl in Cherokee, North Carolina, and Chad Smith, the principal chief of the Western Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Writing and researching for that book helped me so much that I thanked the National Geographic Society in the acknowledgements for The Journal of Jesse Smoke .
Very good records exist about the Trail of Tears. Journals and other records kept by Cherokees and non-Indians tell such things as which people were where on which day. Sometimes you even can find out what the weather was like on a certain day or how the camps were set up at night or what time of the morning people got up to take again to the road. Though my book is fiction, I made very careful use of such records in my writing.
Further, although Jesse Smoke and his family are fictitious, they are based on very real people and events that truly occurred. I made him a part of one of the real detachments of Cherokees that took to the trail, led by such men as the very real Reverend Jesse Bushyhead. In fact, certain entries in Jesse's journal contain not a single untrue word but tell of events just as they are recorded to have happened — such as the journal entries dated December 9, 1838, and December 25, 1838. I also was fortunate to have Cherokee friends who are scholars and writers read my manuscript. I listened closely and took every suggestion made by such people as Robert Conley, whose historical novels about his Cherokee people have received great praise.
While writing this book, in fact, Jesse Smoke became so real that I felt as if I was only taking dictation. Each day when I rose early in the morning to start writing again, I had a sense from the history of where we would be along the route, but I really had no idea what Jesse would say about it. It became his story and not my own. Whatever is good in "my" story, in fact, belongs to those like Jesse Smoke. It belongs to the Cherokee men and women whose hearts stayed strong in the face of adversity. It has been said that to know the Cherokee people is to love them. Both my love and my respect for the Cherokees were truly deepened by working on this book.